“I DON’T THINK OF MYSELF AS JUST A GUITAR
player,” says Tommy Emmanuel, “I’m a song player.
Sure, I love improvising and playing way more than
I should, but playing melody and grooves—that’s
my bread and butter.” It’s not very often that a guitarist
comes along bearing the 6-string holy trinity
of scary chops, songs, and performance skills—but
when they do, oh baby, it’s a beautiful thing. Tommy
Emmanuel undeniably possesses all of the aforementioned
attributes: a guitarist’s guitarist who
composes memorable tunes delivered with a charm
that would get Mark Twain’s attention. A
road dog of epic scope (the past few years
have found the restless Aussie averaging
nearly 300 dates a year), Emmanuel’s 20th
album, Little by Little [Favored Nations], is
a double-CD set that shows the guitarist
to be in absolute peak form.
You have an amazingly varied repertoire that
includes originals, jazz standards, country, and
rock. How important is it for guitarists to learn
a wide variety of material?
I always tell people, if you want to learn
more about the guitar, don’t just settle for
learning modes and scales—you have to
play music. And that invariably means learning
songs. Learning tunes will automatically
force you to learn new things about
the instrument and the fretboard, and give
you a bevy of new positions, chords, and
ideas that will help build your vocabulary.
Learning scales and modes is good, although
I know nothing about them and I play by
ear—but if you think about it, you’re not
inspired by the Mixolydian mode, you’re
inspired by a song that can use the Mixolydian
mode in an expressive, musical way.
You were close to Chet Atkins both personally
and professionally. Surely he had some knowledge
Definitely. He told me that nothing is
more important than playing the melody. I’ll
never forget working on a song with Chet
in his studio. I was really wrestling with a
particular improvised solo, and I asked him
if he had any ideas. As he turned to walk
out of the room he said, “Well, you can’t
beat the melody,” and he left it at that. So
I started the solo by quoting the melody
and bang, I got the take on the next try.
Chet would also say, “Don’t take it too far
out—you have me so don’t lose me—don’t
get too weird.”
When writing, do you ever have a hard time
separating something that’s an impressive guitar
part from something that’s a cool song?
No. With songwriting I don’t think about
chops; I think about music and expressing
it. There are two songwriters inside you: the
one in your head that wants to be clever,
and the one in your heart that wants to be
moved. For me, the heart always wins. I try
to write as if I’m writing for a singer, and
I try not be boxed in by guitar things. I try
to tell stories without words. If people ask
me if I have lyrics for a certain tune, which
occasionally happens, then I know I’m on
the right track, giving the listener an image
Is there a tune on Little by Little that began with
a particular imagery you were trying to convey?
Yes, the track “The Fingerlakes” was inspired
by the group of lakes of the same name in
upstate New York. I tried to imagine being in
a canoe skimming through the fog on top of
the glass-like water. That was how I came up
with those chiming, liquid-like harmonics.
Your playing on record is always stellar, but
live you take everything to another level of intensity.
Do you ever worry about playing too much?
Never. I don’t really care. I’m in the entertainment
business and my job is to entertain
and move people, look them in the eye, surprise
them, and totally fly my kite—that’s what
people want to see and be entertained by. You
have to live in the moment and get out there.
That’s why I beat on my guitars and play all
sorts of crazy s**t on them—because that’s what
playing live is about. If someone says, “Man,
you played a lot on ‘Nine Pound Hammer,’” I
say, “Damn right, and I had a lot more to go!”
You’ve been playing Maton acoustics a long time.
What do they do for you that other acoustic don’t?
The Matons have the best pickup system
for what I do. It’s my voice. The real key to
my sound, however, is the fact that I do what
most acoustic players don’t—I cover the soundhole.
Doing that allows me to crank both the
internal mic and the piezo all the way up. I
want as much as I can possibly get out of a
plugged-in acoustic, and with the internal
mic wide open, I get all of the boxey-sounding
overtones from the body while the piezo
gives me some singing high end.
Do you adjust the preamp controls on your acoustics
for different sounds during a show?
Yes, all the time. When I play a ballad, I’ll
goose the midrange a bit because it makes
the melody poke out and speak a bit more.
The other thing I’ll do is boost the bass on
a Merle Travis tune so that the low notes on
the Travis picking really boom out.
Your sound is always super zingy. Do you change
strings before every gig?
I do. My guitars are fairly bright already and
new strings really make them sing. New strings
not only give me sweeter high end, but I get
more overtones, which I feel make a plugged-in
acoustic sound more acoustic. My trick, however,
is that I change the brand up all the time.
I believe that if you use the same brand
over and over, as much as I change strings,
the guitar gets too used to them, and all of the
brightness and brilliance starts to go away. I
don’t know why that is but it’s something I
noticed when I was using D’Addarios every
night. They stopped giving me that sheen
so I put a set of Martin strings on and bam,
there it was—the guitar was crystal clear
and singing at me. So now I rotate between
Martin, GHS, D’Addario, Cleartone, and
Everly brands, gauged .012-.054.
You’ve stressed the importance of learning
songs. Is there anything you do purely to work on
I do stuff that builds strength. I’ll play really
slow tunes with challenging chords and hold
the chord positions with my left hand—almost
until it hurts. That’s how I build strength in
order to play with clarity and accuracy, allowing
me to draw out all of the beauty of a piece.
There’s an exercise I do where I play an Fmaj7add
9, with my first finger on the sixth string,
1st fret for the F, and my second finger for the
C on the 3rd fret, fifth string. Then I use my
little finger to cover the rest of the chord on
the remaining four strings at the 5th fret. You
hold that for a while and your little finger will
start hurting like hell! That’s what I do to build
the strength in my little finger. That exercise
really helps on a tune like “Mombasa,” where
the melody is seven frets away from where
the chord is.
Your groove and ability to convey it as a solo
guitarist is a huge part of what you do. How did
you cultivate that?
I always tell players, time is not just a
magazine—it’s the most important thing.
I’ve worked on groove and feel my whole
life and I still work on them because they
are so important. I was lucky because when I
was young and learning, I had to back up my
brother, who is also a guitarist, and be able to
cut a groove that he could play over. That’s a
big responsibility without drums and bass.
Also, don’t ever underestimate the power of
the metronome. A lot of people might think
that they’re above using one, but I use it a
lot, just to check myself and make sure I’m
playing a solid grove.
What is the first step for a player who wants
to work on their groove?
The first hurdle is simply being aware of
time. A lot of people just play their guitar and
have a good time, not being aware of meter,
and I’m not saying that’s bad. Youthful exuberance
and excitement about playing guitar
is great. But sooner or later you’ll find that
no one wants to play with you because your
time is all over the place. I always tell players
to really concentrate and try and feel the
groove, then record yourself and listen back.
Be critical and see if you can actually feel and
tap your foot to what you just played. When
I teach at workshops, I remind everyone that
they wouldn’t be there listening to a word
I say if I didn’t groove. Because at the end
of the day, no matter what you’re playing,
groove is the name of the game.